Adapting to change: Safe, thoughtful and engaging research continues on critical studies

Nov 23rd, 2020

By Jeff Green

Research Week runs Nov. 23-27, 2020.
Adapting to change: Safe, thoughtful and engaging research continues on critical studies

If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s the creativity and resilience of our researchers.

Over the last several months, members of our research community have re-envisioned, modified and found ways to (safely) continue their activities and studies, complying with public health and university guidelines.

As part of Research Week celebrations, you’ll learn about some of the innovative and practical ways researchers have been able to continue their collaborations and conduct their work.

The following stories are just a sample: since the start of the pandemic, there have been more than 650 research activity approvals, covering roughly 2,400 researchers.

Grand Banks voyage

Caroline Gini is a PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science.

Ms. Gini completed safety training that allowed her to spend nearly three weeks on the Grand Banks aboard the Atlantic Kingfisher, an offshore supply ship chartered by Mount Pearl-based Kraken Robotics, an industry partner and sponsor for her PhD project.

There, she collected seabed images and tested new deep-sea mapping sensors and equipment.

“Luckily, all participants were from the Atlantic bubble,” said Ms. Gini.

“The seafloor, which covers 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, still remains largely unexplored, yet is one of Earth’s largest habitats and hosts most of the planet’s major tectonic processes,” Ms. Gini added.

“My project focuses on developing methods for the exploration and delineation of marine mineral deposits.”

She says the offshore trip was essential for the progress of her research project and that she feels “very fortunate” to have been able to participate during these challenging times.

‘An island to yourself’

Several master of science students in the Cognitive and Behavioural Ecology Program safely continued their research since March.

Sydney Collins spent time on Gull Island in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve studying the risks storm-petrels encounter in the breeding colony and while foraging at sea.

“Social distancing is easy when you have an island to yourself,” she said.

She and her assistant were in the same bubble.

“In the field, we were sure to wash our hands often and sanitize any materials that were brought in with us.”

Kyle d’Entremont’s research took him to the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, where he worked mainly by himself.

“Our research monitoring the reproductive success and foraging movements of parental Northern Gannets at Cape St. Mary’s is critical, as this colony is the species’ southernmost colony in the world,” he noted.

His research includes learning how differences in foraging efforts driven by environmental conditions may impact reproductive success.

Robert Blackmore is studying the influences of coloured light on the behaviour of Atlantic cod and how this might be applied to enhance the efficacy of hand-line fishing. He spent time in Petty Harbour and at the Ocean Sciences Centre.

“All field research was completed aboard open commercial fishing vessels,” he said.

“The Joe Brown Aquatic Research Building has excellent hand-washing and hygiene practices in place, so it was an easy transition into COVID-19 protocol.”

Successful field school

Drs. Kelley Totten, assistant professor, and Jillian Gould, associate professor, Department of Folklore, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, adapted and moved their department’s field school – a required course for all graduate students – online.

Both were co-instructors of the three-week intensive course, held this fall in partnership with a community collaborator.

“While no one could have predicted the research challenges that would come with COVID-19, we had established good rapport with Heritage New Perlican and they wanted to continue to collaborate, albeit remotely,” the pair said.

Adhering to public health guidelines, Drs. Totten and Gould travelled to New Perlican in August to meet with community members – “safely distanced and masked up” – and firm up their plans for the course.

“We are happy to say that field school 2020 was a success. Students learned the skills and techniques of cultural documentation fieldwork, conducted research and interviews online, and developed lovely rapport with community members.”

The researchers say field work is “at the heart of folklore research.”

Unexpected twists

Dr. Nancy Dahn and Prof. Timothy Steeves, University Research Professors, School of Music, are co-artistic directors of the Tuckamore Festival.

They re-imagined the 20th anniversary of their chamber music festival, normally held in-person at the School of Music each August, as an online celebration.

“We ended up with over 20 livestreamed events over 10 days, featuring only-for-Tuckamore curated performances,” the couple told the Gazette.

“Despite the challenges of virtual presentation, Tuckamore retained its artistic vision and commitment to musical excellence, artistic integrity, education and community outreach.”

The pair, who perform professionally as Duo Concertante, also completed multiple research and artistic creations, including the release of their twelfth recording, Franz Schubert Music for Violin and Piano, via a Facebook Live concert from their home, livestreamed concerts, participated in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s first online masterwork series concert, created their own educational YouTube series and launched Ecology of Being.

The pandemic forced the couple to quickly learn the nuisances of online productions, including operating video and recording equipment and lighting.

Altering plans

The pandemic provided Kaitlyn Hawkins, laboratory manager with the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), with a unique opportunity.

Ms. Hawkins (B.Sc.’19) is originally from Summerford, N.L. Near the start of the pandemic, she headed home with an altered research plan.

“Drawing on the research that we were initially conducting in St. John’s, we were able to come up with somewhat of a similar research project that I could conduct safely while under lockdown in my hometown: a shoreline accumulation study of plastic pollution.”

“The beach was minutes from my house and was a very low risk site for encountering any people.”

So far, Ms. Hawkins has found some interesting results.

“We’re finding that seasonal variations significantly affect the amount of debris accumulation and that there were significantly more thread plastics that accumulated than that of other plastic morphologies.”

Fortunate focus

Thomas Browne is a PhD student in the Department of Ocean and Naval Architectural Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

Mr. Browne is one of dozens of students and researchers who worked with their academic units and Environmental Health and Safety to safely gain access to research spaces, laboratories and technical facilities to continue and maintain research activities.

“My research is contributing to the operational risk management for Arctic shipping,” said Mr. Browne (B.Eng.’10, M.Eng.’12).

“I am specifically focused on how operational risk is addressed by maritime regulations and how the regulatory framework may be enhanced.”

Using on-campus, video-conferencing software, he is able to continue his research, which includes interviewing experts in Arctic ship operations and collaborating with several European universities.

He says safely gaining access to his office gives him a dedicated space, allowing him to focus on the next phase of his research.

‘High quality’ research

Sometimes Newfoundland and Labrador’s remoteness works in our favour.

At least, that’s the case for Dr. Jianghua Wu, associate professor, sustainable resource management, School of Science and the Environment, Grenfell Campus, and his team.

Dr. Wu worked with his graduate students to develop a health and safety plan with reduced numbers in order to continue their research. They conduct field work in a secluded peatland pasture research station on the West Coast.

Their research examines how climate change and human disturbance affects greenhouse gas emissions in boreal peatlands through field observation and measurement and environmental modeling.

“Northern peatlands store about 30 per cent of the global soil carbon, which has significant feedback to climate change and human disturbances,” said Dr. Wu.

He says his graduate students have worked “diligently” to maintain the high quality and high standard of their research work, even under this challenging pandemic.

“I have been able to have regular video conferences with my students to check their progress and any issues that they may have during this difficult time.”

Innovative research

Dr. Deepika Dave, research scientist with the Marine Bioprocessing Facility in the Centre for Aquaculture and Seafood Development at the Marine Institute, and her team have found ways to safely continue their innovative research.

“Our group is turning processing discards into high-value compounds for the food, medical, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical sectors,” Dr. Dave told the Gazette.

“We are examining cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways for fishing and aquaculture industries to maximize the use and value of so-called waste.”

She and her team followed public health and university guidelines to safely obtain samples from industry partners.

“All activities are strictly scheduled in advance to avoid any overlap in these activities and to ensure physical distancing can be maintained,” noted Dr. Dave, who is cross-appointed to the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science.

She says if samples expired, there would be delays that would be “detrimental to the progress” of some of their projects and their deliverables.

Commitment to research

Within the Faculty of Medicine, the Medical Laboratories, which consists of nine units providing research, educational, clinical, teaching and technical laboratory support, is operating safely.

Research and technical staff, including those from its Research Support Facility, Flow Cytometry, Electron Microscopy (EM) and other units, have been and continue to work closely with diverse research teams during the pandemic.

“We instantly had to continue basic research maintenance to support roles, like liquid nitrogen provision and removal of biohazardous waste, which required staff to have a safe and frequent onsite presence,” said Dr. Patricia Cousins, manager, Medical Laboratories, who added that inquires to Memorial’s Anatomical Gift Program donor enrolments have also increased since March.

“Any roles performed by the staff in Med Labs could not be performed remotely. I thank our team members for their commitment to supporting research in a safe and accommodating way since the pandemic began and research approvals were granted.”

Jeff Green is manager of communications in the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He can be reached at